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Monday 31 August 2009

Little Gem

If you're anything like me, there will be a touch of the Del Boy about you. Let's be honest, whisky is not the cheapest hobby in the world. And finding interesting drams to do notes on, and to expand ones palate, can be a battle that only mastercard win. Scouring pubs for long lost bottles on shelves can sometimes lead to a gold mine (my personal favs include St Magdalene 1979 Rare Malt for £2.50 a dram in a hotel in Liverpool, Laphroaig 30 for £3 a dram in a bar in Brighton and an old Port Ellen for £3 a shot in a hotel in Warrington...) while indie off licences and supermarkets can herald the odd gem here and there (£120 for a Port Ellen 3rd Release last year, in Waitrose anyone??). However, while wandering through Oxford's Flea Market last week I spied a wee bottle of something that would cost me over 150 sheets to buy a full bottle of now-a-days: a late 1970's mini bottling of the Balvenie Founders Reserve (early Cognac Style Bottle), advertised for £3. THREE QUID! Far too expensive for a flea market, so yours truly got it for a shiny new TWO POUND COIN. Homeward bound and off came the top for the following tasting notes:

Balvenie 10 Years Old - Founders Reserve - Late 1970's Cognac Style Bottle - 40% - 50ml

Nose: Very soft fudge, brown sugar, mint and basil. Old wax jackets.

Palate: Flap-jack (honey and oats baked together with sultanas), eversuch a slight hint of smoke (not peat, but wood smoke) and a hit of dark chocolate.

Finish: That spearmint again with a touch of chillies, rounding a decent length for a 40% vol.

Overall: This is beautiful, this dram. Damn the bottle size! Very easy to drink, very rounded and the big hit of spearmint that runs throughout is backed by just a hint of smoke and then all that oaty goodness! My guess is that it contains much less sherry than current Balvenie bottlings. I'd be buying this as a staple for the home if it was under £35 a bottle, which it probably was when it came out.

NOTE: Picture coming soon.

Friday 21 August 2009


That split second of confusion, anticipation, hope. A gap of 5 seconds or so where everyone else around you knows what is going on. But not you. You are in the dark. That fact, that little piece of knowledge has not yet reached you. But everyone else around you is in the light. And then you get it. It hits you; that fact, that piece of knowledge. It is in your life, in context and you belatedly make the same reaction as everyone else around you.

I'm sat in my garden, the sun pouring through mottled clouds and a warm, blustery wind whips up the washing on the line. Not far in the distance I hear a loud cheer, so I quickly look down at my computer screen, logged on to a lagging stream of a foreign broadcast, to see an Australian bowler (Siddle) dispatch a perfect delivery to England batsman Broad who hooks it high into the sky. In my ears still rings the cheers of the crowd from The Oval just down the road. He must be out. He's a gonner. But no! As the ball skies towards Mitchell Johnson at long leg, he goes for the catch but drops it! And I cheer. I cheer with same gusto and relief that the 15,000 people down the road cheered. And suddenIy feel part of it again. Part of the atmosphere; part of the summer; part of England.

There really is only one whisky to be sat in the late summer sun with and that is Rosebank. Well, Rosebank and Clynelish. Which makes this a good opportunity to post some recently taken notes from 2x Rosebanks!

Rosebank - 17 YO - Single Malts Of Scotland - Dist. 01.07.91 - Bottled 20.04.09 - Cask No. 2206 - 259 bottles - Vol. 46%

Nose: Nice and fresh, with a good dollop of spirits, some vanilla, cream and mint.

Palate: Rhubarb and custard with a touch of mint again.

Finish: Medium. Smooth and fresh.

Overall: Yummy in the summer time! Forget your G&T, pour a big glass of this with some ice, sit back and take in the evening heat.

Rosebank - Rare Malts - 20 YO -1981 - 62.3% Vol.

Nose: Stewed, dark red fruits. Crumble.

Palate: Sherbet and the extra age has added some liquorice to the taste. Not as light as Rosebanks in their teens (when I think they are at their best) but he extra weight doesn't detract, nor add. But gives a more robust dimension.

Finish: Waxy, "black and red" sweets / dark coloured wine gums.

Overall: My preference is for a Rosebank in it's teens, but this good if you want a little more meat to your delicate spirit.

Monday 17 August 2009

Brave Hjarta...

Today, as I was walking down my south London street, 2 youths passed by and paid me perhaps the ultimate compliment by calling out- "wow, you is WELL Miami Vice".

I presume this was a certain response to my splendid new cream linen blazer, with additional white piping. So holding my head up a little higher and adopting a walk only Don Johnson could muster, I hopped onto the train with an imaginary Jan Hammer theme tune springing my step.

I had 2 parcels in my possession- an older bottling of a classic cabinet favourite, Highland Park 12 year old and a sample of the hottest release on the the whole of Orkney right now- the new cask strength Highland Park expression- Hjarta. I was excited to try both these whiskies side by side. Knowing the former so well, I felt its elegance is defined perfectly by a modest 40% and wondered how the bigger, bolder Hjarta would fare.

Hjarta, which is Norse for 'heart' was timed to celebrate the the total refurbishment of Highland Park's visitor centre and will only be released from the distillery shop and in Scandinavia (which seemed a little ambiguous, seeing as it's such a fairly large place)

What we do know is that it's limited to 3,900 bottles so, HP fans better grab one now before they become 'broken Hjarted'. (sorry, couldn't resist that...)

Hjarta - 12 yo - 58.1% - ltd to 3900 bottles

Nose: Rich caramelised apples, lots of spice, (clove and cinnamon) rolled oats and a big hit of dried fruit. It's hugely reminiscent of the 18 yo, but with a massive kick from the extra power, which rears up to remind you who's in charge. Given a little time in the glass, some of the classic HP smoke comes wafting through on the breeze, with a surprisingly sweet floral fragrance emerging, which tops off a very tasteful start. Lovely.

Palate: Lingering chopped hazel & brazil nuts are the first flavour on the tastebuds, followed by some lemon and orange zest, then sweet vanilla and fizzy lemon sherbets. Less influence from the obvious sherry wood than I imagined. refined and not at all overpowering considering it's strength. with water, more fresh summer fruit comes through, rather like a fruit compote with apple, raspberry and gooseberry.

Finish: Peppery notes from the alcohol sit well on the palate as it dries, with some of the initial caramelised apples from the nose returning for a lengthy finish.

Overall: Certainly no Hjarta attacks here, just a damn fine whisky, which is extremely drinkable. I suspect that there won't be many bottles opened due to it's collectible status, but it sits well among the already excellent HP expressions.

Next up, its slightly less-masculine twin brother:

Highland Park 12 yo- 40% - 70cl

Nose: After the Hjarta, the 12 yo gives a much more delicate aroma, with fresh vanilla, white chocolate and hints of freshly diced apple come through. Hints of Heather honey on the back end. Still one of my favourite noses (alongside the 18 yo)

Palate: Very silky with summer fruits including those gooseberries, sweet apple pie with vanilla custard. What it lacks in strength, it makes up for by sweet talking your taste buds into submission.

Finish: Much less direct and lingering than the Hjarta, leaving traces of vanilla and apple on the drying palate.

Overall: Still a flagship whisky for HP and (alongside the 18 yo) one I feel my cabinet shouldn't be without.

I would urge anyone to try a side-by-side tasting of these whiskies. Although they're a similar age, they really are hugely different beasts, each with their own qualities, but both impeccably dressed. Rather like Crockett and Tubbs.

Saturday 8 August 2009

On The Pul....

Tiredness is a very strange condition. It creeps up on you slowly and coerces you into frankly idiotic situations. Yesterday, I landed back in the UK after a week long tour in the US- the last couple of days of which were spent mostly without sleep in Manhattan, fuelled purely by its signature cocktail and sustained by sweet waffle.

Perhaps it's my body telling me to get some rest but last night after being awake for 30 hours or so, I absent mindedly flame-grilled a shepherds pie to an impressive potato-based inferno and polished my favourite tan brogues with Cherry Red Kiwi. Put simply, I was all over the shop...

Admitting defeat, I slumped off to bed in a sulk. Then, on my way upstairs from the corner of my bag laden eye, I thought I spotted an unusual miniature bottle on top of my cabinet. Putting it down to sleep-related hallucination I took a few more steps, but there it was again, this time calling out to me in a faint Scottish accent- "open me, y'bampot"

Now I was very curious. Where had it come from? What were its contents? and why the hell did it just call me a 'bampot'?

Grabbing a tasting glass from the cabinet (whilst simultaneously knocking a champagne flute to a shattering death on my wooden floor) I seized the little fellow.

"Now look here you- can't you see I need some sleep!" says I.

"Aye. Y've a face like a bulldog licking pish aff a nettle, but surely y'fancy a wee nip before heading to ya bed?" retorts the miniature.

"An impressively eloquent tongue sir" I continue, " but will your innards be as articulate..."
-before whipping off the small screw cap and draining the contents into my glass.

Almost instantly my cloudy, sleep deprived head is slapped into life by the aroma rising from the glass. My bed can wait another half an hour I think, before grabbing my note book and settling down on the Chesterfield with my newly acquainted, if ever-so-slightly insulting new Scottish friend....

Old Pulteney - 30 years Old - 44% vol - 5cl

Nose: A little spirity, but a fragrant waxiness follows, a slight dustiness, some delicate citrus notes and milk chocolate.

Palate: A sharp entry of Parma Violets and lemon grab your attention, followed by a hint of white pepper and then some lovely sweet chocolate-covered hazelnuts. It's a classic mix of solid whisky flavours, but quite unexpected in something 30 years old.

Some red berry notes fade into a box fresh and floral finish- light weight, but in no way underwhelming.

An impressively put together dram, but totally surprising, considering its age. I kind of expected something a little more woody and full bodied, but this stands tall in a different camp to many other aged whiskies. Perhaps we'll see older expressions in the pipeline too, if Pulteney can maintain a vibrancy such as this in its later years.

This morning, I awake to the sound of purring pussy cat, feeling moderately refreshed. It is only then I realise I hadn't made it up to bed, cozying up all night on the Chesterfield. Was my encounter with 'Old Mr Pulteney a dream?? Well, his presence was certainly a memorable one....

Thursday 6 August 2009

Blackadder - Raw Cask

Blackadder - Raw Cask Peat Reek - Single Islay Malt Whisky - Bottled December 2005 - No Distillation Date - 304 Bottles only - 61.8% Vol. - Cask Ref: BA 10575 - Single Oak Hogshead

(with aplogies to Pitchfork and Ray Susuki)

Saturday 1 August 2009

Mental Oriental Malt Mission - Part 3

Tonight... I am Chris Bonnington...

A little bit of time has passed since we posted part 2 of the Caskstrength Oriental Malt Mission, but i've only just found the missing notebook with all the tasting notes in, as I was packing my suitcase for another trip.
You join me typing this final part out on the (fortunately) air conditioned tour bus for a US tour of London band, The Duke Spirit. Today, we're in Boston and the sun is blazing down, gently warming the bottle of 20 yo Longmorn I have bought along for company.

More on this later, but now to business- our last day in Tokyo and to recap, we had already found some unbelievable bars and seen some of the oddest and amusing stuff, that makes Japan so totally unique.

On our final full day in the city we had set aside some time to locate 2 particular bars in the Ginza district, recommended by all-round top fellow and whisky legend, Dave Broom.

As we'd already experienced, finding the bar you want can prove tricky, as the maps I pulled off the internet were not terribly accurate. But a little bit of running around just made us even more determined (and thirsty) to locate what promised to be one of the greatest whisky experiences of our lives.

First up was the intimate Campbelltoun Loch bar, run by the amazingly knowledgeable
Nobuyuki Nakamura.

My pulse had already shot up just walking down the concealed steps to this mecca of Japanese whisky bars and it didn’t slow down when we walked through the door.
The sight before our eyes was quite simply, breathtaking- row upon row of some of the rarest single malt I have ever seen, packed into a room no bigger than a modest terrace house Bathroom. ‘Take a deep breath, pause for a second an take it in’ I thought…. 70’s Ardbeg, Springbank, insanely old Japanese bottlings of Port Ellen, Longmorn's, the list of jems was endless- around 500 bottles give or take a rare old Macallan or 2….

So with the biggest smile on my face, I had reached the summit of my whisky adventure and what better way to celebrate than dive off, head first!!

Here are the undoubted highlights of a most memorable evening- (not withstanding the plethora of wonderful Port Ellen's we also tried, as above)..

Longmorn – 1996 – Berry Bros & Rudd bottling – Cask 56778 – 57.9% Exclusively bottled for Maison Du Whisky

Nose: Crumbled Caramac bars, soft fruits and coal notes. Delicate and fragrant.

Palate: Fruit gums, ginger spices, Hubba Bubba bubble gum, grain & malty notes, leading to loads of hazelnuts, when reduced with a little water.

Finish: The fruity notes increase as the palate dries with sharp Passion Fruit notes on the finish...

Overall: lovely opener to the evening... Ace.

After the palate cleansing lightness of the Longmorn, I noticed a well appointed collection of Lagavulin bottles- but my eye was drawn to one whose label didn’t seem to fit in- thank the lords of Islay it did…

Celtic Cross - 1990- Lochan Solan – Lagavulin bottled by Scottish Independent Distillers Ltd – 46%

Nose: Really delicate for a Laga... Caramac, mint, menthol and malt, so sweet, with subtle raisin notes in there too- Marzipan covered Tracker bar’s anyone?

Palate: Sweetness prevails, creamy toffees, ginger, soft peat, more Caramac, slight roast vegetable notes, mint, rose water... Light weight, but a fairly restrained bottling at 46 %

Finish: Oily, but more of the rosewater on the finish, def. Laga, but lighter than a younger 12 and less rich than the 16 yo.

Overall: Another cracker.

Mr Nakamura pulls out a very old bottle (60’s?) of young Springbank, which is apparently tonight’s complimentary ‘house whisky’…. Where do we go from here I ask myself… ;-o

Springbank 8 Year Old 100% Pure Malt- Bottled for the Japanese market… along time ago! – 40%

Nose: Coconut, mahogany, wine notes, slightly wet wool, lemon zest. The origins of where Springbank came from, all in one bottle.

Palate: Creamy fudge, with some lovely violet notes, heather honey, and oaty breakfast cereal.

Finish: Really rich, sweet cream, wonderful length.

Overall: Quite simply, amazing for a bottle this age. Slightly off strength but soooooo drinkable...

Onto the final dram of the evening and I invite Mr Nakamura to choose me an Ardbeg. By now, I’m so blissfully happy and content, that a 10 yo would suffice, but he goes many steps beyond this. It’s nearing my 34th Birthday (I was born in 1975) and in front of me arrives a whisky I have experienced sleepless nights over, hoping to find see the label, let alone try it...

Ardbeg 1975 - Velier Bottling - cask 4703 - Sherry Hogshead – Cask 51/240 Distilled: 26/12/75 Bottled: 26/03/2002. – 47.6%

Nose: Caramelised fruit mixed with wafts of soft, delicate ‘Swimming Pool’ peat!!! How do they make aromas like this! A bit more time in the glass brings out burnt toast, perfumed marzipan and dried fruit/ raisin-like notes from the sherry.

Palate: Sweet sherbets, heather, that wonderful lightly antiseptic peat, pepper, butterscotch, slightly brittle gingersnaps, into a granular, waxy honey note. Sip by sip, it demands your fullest attention.

Finish: As the peat dies away, dry oak resides, but in the gentlest sense.

Overall: Everything I had hoped for - and then some.

As we thank Mr Nakamura for his wonderful hospitality (something the Japanese have totally redefined) I realize it’s time to put the next plan of action into effect- a special anniversary cocktail for Mrs Caskstrength and there’s only one man to turn to… the master of mixology and owner of Ginza’s Star Bar- Kishi–San.

The Star Bar really is every bit as authentic and traditional as you could have hoped for. Beautifully tasteful leather trimmed décor give this basement bar a real air of 1930’s Manhattan chic.
Well...when in ‘Rome’ I thought, what better than to order a Manhattan? Kishi-San works his magic and before you know it, Mrs Caskstrength and I are given exquisitely mixed timeless drinks. We both just grin at each other, feeling like film stars from a bygone age of glamour and refinement.

Special thanks to Kishi and his superb bar staff for a great anniversary treat. Anyone planning to visit Tokyo MUST visit both Star Bar and Campbelltoun Loch.

As clichéd as it may sound, once you’ve experienced Japan, you’ll never quite feel the same again. It refines your sense of community, your manners and most of all, your wellbeing which I think most Europeans need a large dose of right now. A love affair has well and truly been ignited. Sayonara Japan and see you next year with any luck....